John Kerry is a lifelong ocean lover and a long-time advocate for their protection. It’s this passion which led the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate to start the Our Ocean conference in 2014 during his time as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration. The annual meeting brings together countries, civil society, and businesses to cooperate on and make commitments to further ocean protection. In the years since, Kerry believes, the conference has effectively raised the profile of the oceans in the climate discussion.
“We have succeeded, I think, in getting everyone to understand that you can’t solve the climate crisis without the ocean,” Kerry told TIME in an interview on April 13 on the sidelines of this year’s Our Ocean conference in the Pacific island nation Palau. “And you can’t solve the ocean crisis without reducing emissions.” This year alone, 410 commitments were made and $16.35 billion committed to ocean protection.
Although the conference focused on ocean-related topics, Kerry’s keynote address also touched on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how the events unfolding there highlight the urgency to accelerate the transition to an independent and clean energy future. Speaking with TIME, he expanded on those issues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the first time an Our Ocean conference is being held in a small island developing state, which are particularly at risk from climate change. How does being here in Palau drive home your commitment to protecting the oceans and the need to do that?
It’s not something too novel, because I’ve been in island states before, but it is very stark in the way that it clarifies the reality of their problems. You see the poverty and you see the reduced numbers of options and you can tune in much more easily to the reason that the impact of a marine protected area has more of a kick here than it does in places that are wealthier, whether it’s the state of Washington or Oregon or Massachusetts or California. Obviously, managing it here is a much tougher or people-disruptive process. So I think it just emphasizes it.
Palau is blessed in the sense that it’s got elevation and therefore sea level rise might not be the same thing as if you’re an atoll nation. If you’re an atoll nation it’s a more immediate crisis. But nevertheless, the lack of resources, when you hear what the budget size is or what the needs are, it just puts an exclamation point on it.
What do you want to see from COP27 in terms of ocean protection?
I think it’s going to begin to be time to have greater transparency and accountability of what people are doing and making certain that their mitigation efforts are taking place because if you don’t mitigate you cannot cure the ocean. So I think mitigation taking enough of a central position in COP27 is the big key.
Do you think the oceans, and their role in climate change, are now getting the focus that they deserve?
Beginning to. I think the last few years have been a building process. I think what we succeeded in doing at Glasgow—when oceans got included for the first time in the body of text of COP—that was a huge step forward that signaled success with what started with the Our Ocean conference in 2014.
We have succeeded, I think, in getting everyone to understand that you can’t solve the climate crisis without the ocean. And you can’t solve the ocean crisis without reducing emissions. The warming of the earth and the acidic particulates that fall from the burning of fossil fuels are what’s changing the chemistry of the ocean. So that’s now fully baked into what’s happening at COPs.
You touched on events in Ukraine in your keynote address at the conference. How do you keep people thinking about climate change and keep leaders making progress on climate change when there are so many competing priorities?
Look at what Europe is doing. Europe has doubled down, tripled down on the deployment of renewables. Europe is breaking away from dependency on Putin for gas. I think it regrets enormously the policy of the last years where they sort of played into this complacency and convenience, that it wouldn’t be weaponized, or Putin would never do something. So now people are forewarned and clearly responding.
The sooner everybody stops fueling the war, the better. The downsides of the dependency of the region on fossil fuel have been highlighted and brought home in dramatic and horrible ways.
U.S. officials have warned China about sanctions should they support Russia’s war in Ukraine. Do you think that China and the U.S. can continue to partner on climate change?
We’re putting that to the test right now. We’ve exchanged several calls in the last month and a half or two months. We’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings and we’re really trying to find out just how connected the issues will be.
Does the situation in Ukraine put the U.S. climate agenda at risk?
There’s a potential to affect it. Could it be negative or very negative? Yeah. Is it today? We don’t know yet.
There are a lot of Americans struggling to pay for gas right now. What would your message be to them on climate action?
Rising gas prices have a big impact on people’s lives and I’m very mindful of that. But the fastest thing we can do is to get away from being so dependent on fossil fuel, like gas and oil, and make the transition to a clean energy economy. And the sooner we do that, the sooner we’re not victims of these kinds of price swings.
What action do you want to see taken in the next decade to address climate change?
Everything. We are way behind. We’ve known that, it’s no surprise. I’ve been saying that in speech after speech for a couple of years now. We remain way behind, notwithstanding Glasgow.
Obviously COVID-19 has had some impact on that and of course Ukraine has had some impact on that. But it’s much more the entrenchment of certain interests to protect themselves and to adopt strategies that will result in greater production of fossil fuel and an overt strategy to try to pretend it’s all due to Ukraine, which it’s not.
The IPCC report makes it crystal clear that if we want to avoid trillions of dollars being spent to clean up the worst consequences of the climate crisis, we have to hugely pick up the pace at which we are currently combating greenhouse gas emissions. That means much faster in our deployment of renewables. That means much faster in our transition to electric vehicles, much faster in our efforts to contain methane. Every step of the way, we have to speed up. We have to treat this like the existential issue that it is. Not speak the words, but do the things, and take the actions that are necessary for the transition.
We just have to keep punching with the technology that we have today, so that we can still reduce enough by 2050 to get to net-zero. It’s all linked. If anybody is putting forward a net-zero 2050 [plan], my first question to them is, ‘what are you doing between 2020 and 2030?’ If you don’t do enough then, you don’t make it.
TIME is a media partner for Our Oceans Conference.
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